Four Color Apocalypse 2021 Year In Review : Top Ten Special Mentions

Next in our year-end lists we come to TOP TEN SPECIAL MENTIONS, a “grab-bag” category I came up with a few years back to encompass everything adjacent to comics that isn’t comics “proper” per se — so in short we’re talking about art books; ‘zines, books, and scholarly works about comics and/or cartoonists; non-comics projects by people who usually do comics; and, perhaps most nebulously, sequentially-illustrated narrative works that don’t quite fit the standard operating definition of comics in that they don’t contain word balloons, thought bubbles, or in-panel caption boxes. Read on and all will, hopefully, become clear :

10. Bubbles, Edited By Brian Baynes (Bubbles Publications) – Baynes’ “independent fanzine about comics and manga” had another strong year, and if there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate about this publication above all else it’s the unabashedly fannish tone the editor and writers bring to the table. There’s not an ounce of cynicism to be found in these pages — everyone who contributes to this ‘zine literally loves the medium, and it shows.

9. Please, God – Help Me Be Normal! By John Trubee (Mucus House) – A long-overdue comprehensive collection of Trubee’s “Ugly Men” drawings, plus other miscellany, that not only doesn’t disappoint but might even exceed expectations. A gallery of grotesqueries for the ages that is a required item on the coffee tables of all who read this blog.

8. Queen City By Karl Christian Krumpholz (Tinto Press) – A unique narrative and visual history of Denver by the cartoonist who knows it best, as well as a heartfelt lament for the its pre-gentrification glory days. this feels very much like the work Krumpholz has been building toward his entire career. Gorgeously illustrated, evocatively written, and altogether engrossing.

7. Strangers, Edited By Eddie Raymond (Strangers Fanzine) – The old-school print ‘zine that specializes in old-school content branched out a bit in conceptual terms this year, covering more new stuff and featuring tons of original comics by a “murderer’s row” of talented cartoonists. Every time a new issue comes in the mail I devour it from cover to cover, and it always leaves a big, shit-eating grin on my face.

6. Discipline By Dash Shaw (New York Review Comics) – Sure to be a fixture on many a “best comics of 2021” list, Shaw’s meditation on the Civil War, the limits of pacifism, and the human toll of conflicts inner and outer fits the SPECIAL MENTIONS category here in that it is a series of illustrations derived and adapted from letters written at the time. Innovative, exquisitely drawn, and instantly memorable, this is a powerful and poignant work from a contemporary master fully in command of all his storytelling gifts.

5. Francis Bacon By E. A. Bethea (Domino Books) – You can expect to find this on any number of “best-of” list as well — this one included, obviously — but again, due to the absolutely unique nature of Bethea’s work, I’m more comfortable categorizing it as “narrative sequential art.” Deeply personal, evocative, and as always using its subject as springboard to a long-form reverie that unfolds like a vividly-remembered dream, this is, in my humble estimation, Bethea’s most fully-realized and emotionally resonant ‘zine to date.
4. According To Jack Kirby By Michael Hill (Self-Published Via Lulu) – The necessary historical corrective we’ve all been waiting decades for is here, as Hill meticulously combs through thousands of “on-the-record” quotations and statements to present a persuasive and comprehensive case for Kirby as the pre-eminent creative genius in mainstream comics history as well as the sole creator of most of the so-called “Marvel Universe.” An exhaustive forensic examination of the facts written in an engaging, page-turning style that might even make the most hardened of Stan Lee partisans think twice about all the bullshit their guy spewed to line his own pockets and enrich his corporate paymasters at the expense of an undisputed — and still under-appreciated — true artistic visionary.

3. Mysterious Travelers : Steve Ditko And The Search For A New Liberal Identity By Zack Kruse (University Press Of Mississippi) – Without question the finest work of Ditko scholarship ever committed to print, Kruse re-contextualizes the iconoclastic creator’s singular body of work within a more expansive framework that gives new insights into the motivations behind, and philosophy of, one of comics’ most uncompromising auteurs. More than a historical re-analysis, this is a meticulously-researched and eye-opening critical appraisal of some of the most important work in the history of the medium that has only been partially understood by far too many who have laid unearned claims of expertise on it in the past.

2. A Cockeyed Menagerie : The Drawings Of T.S. Sullivant, Edited By Conrad Groth (Fantagraphics) – Years in the making, and clocking in at well over 400 pages, this utterly sublime monograph covers every phase of Sullivant’s groundbreaking career from the 1880s up to the 1920s, and to say no stone has gone unturned and no expense has been spared in its preparation and presentation is an understatement of criminal proportions. This is the prestige release of the year, perhaps of the last several years, and balances historical essays, critical appreciations, and painstakingly-restored artwork to give a full and complete picture of a true artistic trailblazer. Lose yourself in this one and you may find you never want to come out of it.

1. I Never Promised You A Rose Garden By Mannie Murphy (Fantagraphics) – A lyrical melding of the personal, political, social, and historical into one gorgeously expressive and darkly harrowing journey through both the streets of Portland and Murphy’s own life, this is bold and revelatory work that stands with the best art created in any medium this year. A love letter to an idealized vision of a city that never was, a requiem for a dream that nobody even tried to realize, a righteous call to action for a future that is hopefully still worth fighting for — this is a modern masterpiece in every respect that elicited a reaction I wasn’t even sure I was capable of anymore after so many years in the critical trenches : awe.

And with that, I’m taking a short holiday break. The end-of-year recaps will resume next week with my picks for TOP TEN VINTAGE COLLECTIONS, TOP TEN CONTEMPORARY COLLECTIONS, and TOP TEN ORIGINAL GRAPHIC NOVELS. Hope to see you then — in the meantime, should you want more of my content for whatever reason, including a couple of posts on my thought processes as I was cobbling these lists together, I humbly remind you that I have a Patreon that I update three times per week and that you can join for as little as a buck a month. Here’s the link : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

Four Color Apocalypse 2020 Year In Review : Top 10 Ongoing Series

Rolling right along with our end-of-year surveys, we come to 2020’s Top 10 Ongoing Series. Qualifiers in this category are serialized comics that saw more than one issue or volume released in the past 12 months. Not sure any further explanation beyond that is necessary? And so —

10. Psychodrama Illustrated By Gilbert Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Beto’s latest side-step limited series focuses on somewhat surreal interpretations of the lives of Fritz and her family, resulting in a heady mix of the topical, the trippy and, of course, the libidinal. Familiar faces, unfamiliar places.

9. The Immortal Hulk By Al Ewing, Joe Bennett, Ruy Jose, et al. (Marvel) – The best “Big Two” series in ages showed no signs of slowing down in 2020, as Ewing interjected political issues and plenty of plot twists into his “long game” storyline, while Bennett continued to wow with richly-illustrated action sequences and uniformly inventive character designs. Where it’s all going no one knows but them, but where it’s already been has, to date, proven to be downright fantastic.

8. Vacuum Decay Edited By Harry Nordlinger (Self-Published) – Premier indie horror cartoonist Nordlinger is a guy with a vision, and in his new anthology series he invites others to the party to broaden it out, resulting in an intriguing blend of talents both old and new, all telling punchy, short-form tales of terror that delight in subverting conventions and norms without ever disrespecting them.

7. The Lighthouse In The City By Karl Christian Krumpholz (Self-Published) – Few cartoonists, if any, have made more productive use of their time in quarantine than Denver’s Krumpholz, who started this project looking to make diary comics about his wife’s then-upcoming surgery and her attendant recovery, and ended up documenting, for lack of a better tern, “The Full 2020 Experience.” As real and immediate as comics get.

6. Kids With Guns By Alex Nall (Self-Published) – What first began as a rather touching story about the inter-generational friendship between two neighbors has evolved into a taut but understated thriller of sorts that examines any number of pitfalls and challenges facing today’s youth with wit, wisdom, and grace. I can’t imagine Nall will have any trouble finding a publisher for the collected edition of this once all is said and done.

5. Love And Rockets By Gilbert And Jaime Hernandez (Fantagraphics) – Another strong year for a series that seems to be experiencing a creative resurgence of sorts since returning to its original magazine format with Jaime, in particular, turning in some of the most compelling work of his illustrious career. For those of us of a certain age, these guys got us through our adolescence and our young adulthood, and they’re doing much the same now that we — and their characters — navigate middle age.

4. Now Edited By Eric Reynolds (Fantagraphics) – A very nice bounce-back year for the increasingly-infrequent anthology, and who knows? Maybe that increasing infrequency is the key to its success. After padding his pages with substandard and reprinted material last year, editor Reynolds is once again commissioning almost entirely strong original work, and presenting it in a format — and at a price — that makes “art comics” accessible to the general reading public. One big blemish emerged at the end of the year in terms of his choices that calls his thinking, and perhaps even his judgment, into question, but this isn’t the place to go into all that.

3. Tinfoil Comix Edited By Floyd Tangeman (Dead Crow) – This one came out of left field this past year and hit me like a ton of bricks, as it represents the kind of thing so many of us are always looking for : a collection of unique and idiosyncratic strips largely done by cartoonists you’ve more than likely never heard of before. There’s a real underground sensibility at work here, a kind of “anything goes” philosophical approach that results in every page holding the promise of something new and unexpected — and usually delivering.

2. Ex. Mag Edited By Wren McDonald (Peow Studio) – A conceptually-innovative new deluxe anthology series with a rotating genre theme — Cyberpunk and Paranormal Romance anchoring the first and second volumes, respectively — has proven itself to be precisely the tonic world-weary readers have needed in this year unlike any other, and why not? This is a comic unlike any other, and with its “expiration date” built in from the start one gets the distinct sense of this being a work that is being carefully cultivated to both reflect the concerns of the here and now while also standing the test of time. “Where comics are going” is here now.

1. Future By Tommi Musturi (Boing Being) – Dazzling both in its array of styles and its top-flight production values, the planet’s most versatile cartoonist is here crafting a tapestry and a puzzle box at the same time, depicting diverse future worlds that are somehow all connected, somehow all real — and somehow, paradoxically, all self-aware of their own fictitiousness. It’s hard to say what we’re getting more of here, imagination or talent, but what’s certain is that both are combining to create something that bears all the hallmarks of being, I kid you not, one of the best comics of all time once everything is said and done.

Two lists down, four to go! I’ll be back with the Top 10 Special Mentions in the next day or two!

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Review wrist check – Zodiac “Super Sea Wolf 53” in its modern “Blackout Edition” variant.

Also, this review — and all others around these parts — is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing is the best way to support my continuing work, so I’d be very appreciative if you’d take a moment to give it a look by directing your kind attention to https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

“One Minute To Wonderland” : A Quick And Worthwhile Trip

Single-panel comics are a tough game to make a go of it in — especially if you’re going for something more, or at least other, than a quick laugh — but in his second self-published collection of them, the just-released One Minute To Wonderland, Denver-based cartoonist Karl Christian Krumpholz builds on the strong foundation he established in his previous go-’round, The City Was Never Going To Let Go, and manages to do something quietly extraordinary : breathe real depth, character, and dimension into people and situations we meet for only the briefest of moments.

Not that you wouldn’t be well-advised to spend at least a bit of time lingering over his expressive, intuitively-intricate illustrations, mind you : already well-established as arguably the definitive delineator of the modern socio-economic urban landscape in sequential form, Krumpholz is fast learning to translate those skills into “one-off” drawings — all of which are admittedly of a piece, but each of which expresses a truly distinct interpretation of city life on or near the broadly-defined “margins.” You want the real deal? This book is it.

As an overall aesthetic experience, it’s pretty hard to argue with what Krumpholz has cooked up here : presented in a unique 8.5″ x 5.5″ format on slick yellowed paper between heavy cardstock covers, this comic’s horizontal orientation offers the drawings contained within it plenty of room to spread out, giving a wonderfully contrasting “macro” feel to the “micro” interior worlds they frequently communicate, the end result being a collection that captures both the feel and look of densely-populated urban living and the uneasy place of the individuals attempting to make a go of holding onto a sense of self in the face of sometimes-overwhelming odds. Some opt to stand out, others to blend in, but each person has a story to tell, and those stories are often at the their most raw, powerful, and immediate when communicated via this sort of verbal and visual shorthand.

Krumpholz has been playing with various shades of blue as his accentuating color of choice for some time, and that experience really shows here, its placement being uniformly well-considered and drawing the eye toward important information that isn’t necessarily and/or immediately obvious — color choices are an interesting thing to consider even in far less-skilled hands than this, it’s true, but herein they rise to the level of being a living, breathing character in and of themselves, and trust me when I say that only sounds pretentious “AF.” Again, there’s nothing preventing you from getting the general gist of things in this book by means of a breakneck initial pass-through — indeed, I might even recommend doing so in order to absorb its contents in an emotive “rush” — but go back to the start after you’ve hit the end and do it all over again, this time taking in every facet of every drawing. I guarantee you’ll be glad that you did.

Commutes are a constant theme in Krumpholz’ comics, particularly those undertaken by means of mass transit, but so are those isolated moments when all is still, quiet, and a person is fixed to and/or in a certain spot. The one thing both motion and lack thereof have in common in these slices of life, though, is that the minds of the individual “protagonists” we’re presented with are far from quiet, whether they’re engaged in taking in their immediate surroundings or off on flights of fancy to places far away. Peace always feels hard-won, and momentary at best, but even when it arrives, Krumpholz’ characters seem to be girding for their next action, whatever it may be. Much, I suppose, as many of us probably do — so keep that in mind the next time your significant other says you have difficulty being “present,” I would suggest, and adjust accordingly.

Still, relationship advice is pretty far removed from what you visit this site for, and rightly so. That being said, the fact that Krumpholz’ comics offer still-life portrayals of so many things we can all relate to, reflect upon, and even learn from is testament to their power and efficacy — and whether you spend five minutes with his newest collection or five hours, either way it’s an experience you’re sure to remember.

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One Minute To Wonderland is available for $10 from Birdcage Bottom Books at https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/comic-books/products/one-minute-to-wonderland

Also, this review, and all others around these parts, is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics for as little as a dollar a month. Subscribing there is the best way to support my ongoing work, so please take a minute to give it a look and, should you feel so inclined, join up. The link is https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse

 

 

Weekly Reading Round-Up : 07/21/2019 – 07/27/2019, Karl Christian Krumpholz

Flying way further below the radar than he deserves to, Denver-based Karl Christian Krumpholz is staking his claim to the territory marked “pre-eminent cartoonist depicting the realities of American urban life.” Which, admittedly, would be too long a title to fit on most plaques or awards. Nevertheless, it’s true, and now it’s my job to tell you why —

30 Miles Of Crazy!  #7, the latest issue of Krumpholz’ self-published ongoing comic series, is quite possibly the strongest one to date, relating short-form stories of strippers, white-collar office functionaries, bartenders, transplants, and other real-as-that-stain-on-your-shirt folks with an elegantly simple dose of entirely unforced sympathy and a keen eye for authenticity in dialogue mostly missing from other monologue-driven narratives in any medium. The art is gritty but fluid, with strong emphasis on facial expressions, body language, and richly-detailed backgrounds. Krumpholz writes and draws the holy hell out of every panel, and it shows : this comic doesn’t just look “lived-in,” it feels “lived-in” — and you’ll want to spend part of your own time left living with it, as well.

Nothing But Suitcases presents the true — and truly harrowing — story of a woman who moves to Denver to take a new job, finds that said job has fallen through, and is very suddenly without a home for herself and her children. Welcome to the ugly reality of homelessness in America — namely, that it could happen to just about any of us, at any time, and it’s a fucking nightmare. Produced in conjunction with a pair of Denver “urban initiative”-type charitable non-profits, this is a pretty short comic, but nevertheless well worth the time and money.

The City Was Never Going To Let Go, presented in a unique horizontally-inclined format, is a collection of single-panel strips that cuts right to the heart of the themes explored in Krumpholz’ other, longer-form work that really give his lush, complex art a chance to shine, given each image is afforded a page unto itself to go about its visual storytelling business. Surprisingly substantive for what it is, anyone who digs this guy’s skills as a pure illustrator owes it to themselves to pick this one up.

— But We Wish You The Best Of Luck! is, essentially, “reject file” stuff, a collection of gag strips, drawings, and short tales of urban living that were, for whatever reason, passed on when submitted to various publications. Fair enough — for a good number of these you can understand why, but for a number of other very strong pieces of work presented herein, you’ve honestly gotta wonder why, because they’re really damn good. Probably the least cohesive of the books under our non-existent radar this week, it’s nevertheless an interesting publication for the hard-core Kumpholz fan on your list — or, ya know, for yourself — but don’t expect to be particularly challenged or enthralled by it if you’re not a completist collector of his work. I dug it, sure, but I’m not certain how many folks will find the whole thing terribly worthwhile. Could I be wrong? Absolutely. Does it mean I usually am? Absolutely not. But hey, you knew that already.

Krumpholz’ comics are available from a number of small-press distributors, but for my money the easiest place to find ’em all in one go is at Birdcage Bottom Books, so get thee over to https://birdcagebottombooks.com/collections/artist-krumpholz-karl-christian

And that’s this week in the rear view. As always, this column is “brought to you” by my Patreon site, where I serve up exclusive thrice-weekly rants and ramblings on the worlds of comics, films, television, literature, and politics. You can join for a little as a dollar per month, so come on — what excuse to you have not to give it a go? That’s right, none. Please take a moment to check it, I really would appreciate it.

Oh, and I suppose a link would come in handy. Here you go : https://www.patreon.com/fourcolorapocalypse